It is an early Friday morning. The alley is quiet except for the shopping carts and the rattling cans and bottles of the bottle collectors. This area is home to mostly apartment buildings, some large and high with swimming pools, others three-story walks-ups. All of the buildings are well-maintained with pleasant flowerbeds, manicured bushes, and healthy green lawns.
On this particular street, a large brown house is flanked by two low-lying apartment buildings. At one time, this was probably a grand house, belonging to an affluent family, but somewhere along the way, someone had the foresight to turn the house into apartments and the backyard into a parking lot for the tenants. The owners, a young couple with two school age boys, live on the main floor. The remaining apartments and rooms are rented to quiet tenants who don't smoke or have pets and who are willing to sign a year lease. Because this is such a good area, the owners can afford to be choosy.
The house is like the apartments on the street in that it has a large steel garbage bin and four recycling containers behind it in the back alley. In this city, the garbage and recycling trucks do their picks up in the alleys, not on the streets—a particular convenience for the bottle collectors who can go about their daily business unobtrusively. The sound of rattling bottles and cans has become for these residents a background noise that they are so accustomed, they scarcely hear it; not unlike the sound of traffic, airplanes, sirens, or honking horns.
In what would be the apartment building to the left of the brown house, if you were facing the alley, lives a thirty-year-old woman and her husband. He is a college instructor, and she works from home writing articles for an encyclopedia on ancient Africa. The woman and her husband have only lived in this apartment for a few months now. It's smaller than they would have liked and the rent is high for what they've got, but it's in a convenient location and it’s safe. They tell themselves that that's what they're paying for.
Although the apartment is small and faces onto the alley, they have a great view of the mountains, especially from their bedroom window. Everyday the mountains change, and sometimes the clouds hide them so it appears as if there are no mountains at all. This is what the woman likes best about living here—having a different view every day. But what she likes least about the apartment doesn't have anything to do with its price or size or design—it's the family next door.
On warm sunny days, the family plays games in the parking lot behind their house. At first this didn't bother the woman, in fact, she thought it was great to see a family actually spend time together. I'll do that when I have kids, she even thought to herself. And it was nice to see, and it would have been great if not for the youngest boy. Invariably, during one of their many games: hockey, roller blading, biking, soccer, catch, he would end up getting mildly hurt or something would end up happening that he didn't particularly like or that didn’t particularly go his way and he would start crying. But he wouldn't just cry, a nice soft little cry—he would bawl and scream. And when this boy bawls and screams the sound is piercing. It's worse than the sound of the screeching tires of a car about to embark on a head on collision at busy intersection, and worse still than the sound thereafter of the succeeding cars slamming one by one into each other. It is so bad that the woman has actually taken to fantasizing about torturing the boy. At first she thought she was a terrible person for doing this. She wondered if maybe it meant that she was sick and needed to get some help or that she would be a bad mother and abuse her kids when and if she and her husband ever have them. They've decided to wait until they can afford them, which was fine when she was in her twenties, but now that she's over thirty she's worried she's running out of time.
But just as the woman thought she should check herself into the nearest hospital, she noticed that she didn't have the same reaction when other children cried. No, she wasn't enraged in the same way; she didn't imagine pinching their arms or stuffing their faces with cotton balls so that they would shut up. Sure, when other children cried it was unpleasant the way anyone finds a loud noise unpleasant, but she didn't have the same reaction as she did with this boy.
To test herself, the woman felt that she needed to test herself just in case she was cracking up, she would stand closer than she normally would to other crying children to see if the problem was indeed hers. And much to her relief, she was fine. Instead of wanting to drive the screaming little brats to the middle of a football field and leave them there to scream and cry their heads off, she felt that she wanted to console the other children. She felt she wanted to help them and take care of them. And this was her real nature. This was the person that she truly was. And it was after several experiments such as this that she realized the problem was not hers at all—it was the boy. There was something wrong with him.
And now when the boy cries, she delights in her secret fantasies and scarcely feels a shred of guilt. The challenge in these fantasies is to torture the child without bringing any real harm to him, to do the things that a mean older sibling might do like making him eat things that would be distasteful or humiliating him in front of his peers.
But although she feels no guilt about the fantasies with respect to this one boy, there remains a nagging concern at the back of her mind, which is—what if she, when and if she and her husband ever have them, have a child like this? Although she feels this would be most rare and almost an impossible fate to befall her and her husband as there is no sign of it on either side of either of their families, it is a concern all the same. How far can a mother's love truly go? she often ponders as she tensely watches the boy playing below her in the parking lot. How can the mother of that child love him, to any extent, with that awful, ghastly wail? You'd be always waiting for it, she thinks. You'd always be on your guard—the way a person living with a drunk prepares for him to drink, even if he hasn't had a drop in months.
When the woman is not fantasizing, she likes to try and let the family know what she thinks of their youngest child as well as their loud and inconsiderate behaviour in what would otherwise be a quiet neighbourhood. She does this in subtle ways. For though the issue is at times troublesome, it has not escalated to the extent that she would confront them face-to-face. She has often thought of dropping a letter in their mailbox, but she surmises that she has spent an inordinate amount of time on this family as it is, and to write up a letter and take the effort of walking over to their house and placing it in their mailbox somehow seems frivolous. So instead she has decided to drop clues, which both save her time and clearly, she hopes, gets the message across.
Some of these clues include closing the blinds abruptly or if the window happens to be open, slamming it shut. The woman has, on these occasions, seen the mother or father of the boys look up and then casually go back to whatever game they happen to be playing. The woman has also, in one case of desperation, hollered—Be quiet, which the family just flat out ignored. She had wanted to use other words but restrained herself because there were children present. Once in the middle of the day, when the children were not around, there came a sudden burst of loud music from the house. The woman was working on one of her encyclopedia articles at the time: sixteenth century Songhay king, Askia the Great. She had become so flustered and annoyed by the music that she could not control herself, and she screamed at the top of her lungs in the loudest voice she could muster: Shut the fuck up! Interestingly enough a few moments later, the music stopped, and as far as she is aware it has never happened again.
When the woman told her husband about it, he found the whole thing hilarious, especially that she had the nerve to yell like that. But the woman didn't think it was very funny. It doesn't feel funny when it's you losing control, she had said to him at the time. And secretly she had worried that the children might have been around. Just because she hadn't seen them didn't mean they weren't there.
Conveniently, her husband always seems to be teaching when the boy cries, and the family playing games in parking lot doesn't bother him as much as it bothers her. He thinks she's over reacting. And she doesn't blame him for thinking this; it's only natural. She's surprised, in fact, that he doesn't think she's crazy. If only you heard the way he cried, she tries to explain. Then you'd feel the same way as me. But he never gives the conversation more than a nod or the occasional really or that sounds awful. So the woman has given up telling her husband about it; she hardly mentions it to him at all.
On this early Friday morning the woman is plugging away as usual on her encyclopedia articles. Today she writing about Ethiopia, and she thinks it strange that she's writing about all these places that she will mostly likely never get to see.
Everything in the neighbourhood is relatively quiet. It is warm out, and the woman has her window wide open so she can feel the light breeze move through the room as she works. For the moment, she couldn't be more content.
Then suddenly, outside, she hears a screen door slam. She hears the mother from the house next door raise her voice and say sharply, You sit here and think about what you have done! And then the screen door slams again and locks.
Before the woman even has a chance to go to the window to investigate, it has already started. The boy is sitting on the back stairs of the house crying at the top of his lungs, crying as if he has just been shot or as if he has just found out that his mother is dead. Oh, it is an awful sound, the woman thinks to herself. And she is just about to shut the window so she can try to get some work done when she hears something else—a bottle collector pushing his cart over to the garbage and recycling bins. Not an unusual sound, but there's something else that she hears beneath the child's wail that causes her to stand at the window and watch. It is either muttering or singing; the woman can't tell which, but nonetheless, it piques her curiosity, and she stays where she is. As the bottle collector busies himself with his work, the child continues to cry in the same loud, piercing pitch that makes the woman want to throw something at him or douse him with a fireman's hose.
At first the bottle collector doesn't seem to hear the child crying, and the woman wonders if maybe he's deaf. But then he starts flailing his arms as if to shoo away a fly, and the woman suddenly realizes that what he's trying to shoo away is the sound coming from the child. At last, an ally, the woman thinks. If at first she was tempted to return to her work, she is now not. For the scene that is about to unfold is sure to out do any fantasy that she could make up herself.
The boy's wails have remained at the same pitch for the last few moments, a kind of steady rhythm of WAN...WAN...WAN...WAN...WAN. His efforts, it would appear, have failed to rouse the attention of his mother, so he tries another tactic of screaming for her intermittently between sobs. It is a horribly desperate sound, and the woman thinks the child must have done something rather treacherous.
The bottle collector has now stopped working and is staring at the boy with the most disgusted look on his face he seems able to muster. Then, to the woman's surprise, he emits a loud noise not unlike the boy's sounds, and she suddenly realizes that he is mimicking the child.
WAN...WAN, the bottle collector says.
But the woman doesn't think the boy can hear him over his own sobs.
WAN, WAN, WAN, the bottle collector says, louder.
The boy stops and looks at him but continues crying as he had before. He doesn't appear frightened by the man just surprised to hear him speak.
You're too old to be crying like that, the bottle collector says angrily and then tosses a bottle and some cans into his cart.
The woman is glad to see that the child evokes the same rage in the bottle collector as he does in her. She is glad to see that she is not alone.
WAN, WAN, WAN, he says again. I'll give you something to cry about.
It occurs to the woman that if the situation were to escalate, she might actually have to step in on the boy's behalf. Though there isn't much she could do from here. Well, she could say something to the bottle collector or holler for the boy's mother or even tell the boy to get his mother. But she'd only do that if the situation were to get out of control. She's enjoying it too much now to say anything.
I'll give you something to cry about, the bottle collector repeats.
For a brief moment, the boy is silent and a look of fear finally crosses his face. He still cries, but now it is the cry of fear not the cry of whatever he was crying about before.
The bottle collector appears very annoyed that he has not been able to shut this boy up. He completely stops what he's doing and starts to walk over to the child.
You're an orphan, he says to the boy. That's something to cry about. You're an orphan.
Now the boy is crying hysterically, and it is clear he is very frightened of the grizzly looking man who is standing before him with an empty pop bottle in his hand. A pop bottle, it looks like, he intends to whip at the child.
FUCKING ASSHOLE! the bottle collector says and moves toward the boy menacingly.
It would be at this point that someone else would head downstairs or at least say something to the man—utter a threat or throw something at him so the boy could get away. But if the woman is planning to step in, she is not showing it. She remains so fixed her in position that it is as if she has just been turned to stone.
As she stares down at the bottle collector and the boy and their increasingly close proximity to one another, she is suddenly struck by a realization that she can no longer ignore—that not every woman born is meant to be a mother. And though the realization pains her, it also gives her a surprising sense of relief. It is then that she decides she will not go down. She will let things unfold as if she hasn't been watching. And this decision horrifies her. She doesn't even feel like she's been given a choice. Even if she wanted to go down and protect the boy, her feet will not carry her. In that sense she is paralyzed to act, but not out of fear as one might suppose but out of something greater than hate.
When her husband comes home that night and finds the woman weeping on the couch, he presses her to tell him what is wrong, but she won't. She just keeps crying the most sorrowful cry he's ever heard. And isn't until years later when she eventually tells him that she will not bear him a child that he finally knows of the loss for which she had been weeping.